Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Banned Book that Changed Me

Saundra Mitchell has been a phone psychic, a car salesperson, a denture-deliverer and a layout waxer. She's dodged trains, endured basic training, and hitchhiked from Montana to California. She teaches herself languages, raises children, and makes paper for fun. She's also a screenwriter for Fresh Films and the author of Shadowed Summer and The Vespertine. Read as she talks about a banned book that changed her:

I've been a screenwriter for a long time, and I wasn't sure if I'd ever write a novel. The timing wasn't right, my ideas weren't big enough, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to accomplish. Then I read LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green. It hadn't won the Prinz yet; I'd never heard of it. It was an impulse purchase, because the jacket copy sounded good.

Then I read it, and it changed everything. Everything, from the voice to the story engaged me, and when I put that book down, I knew what I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to write books that told the truth, about life as it is, about people as they are. Shortly thereafter, I wrote my first novel (which lives in the comfortable, unjudging darkness of my bottom drawer.) And then my second, which became SHADOWED SUMMER.

My debut party for SHADOWED SUMMER loomed, and Heidi Kling (who wrote SEA,) decided that I should invite John Green. We both lived in Indianapolis, she reasoned. We were both writers. Though I pointed out that John was kind of famous, and probably kind of busy, and also, totally a stranger, Heidi persisted. E-mail after e-mail, invite him, invite him! And I blew her off, until Heidi sent this e-mail:

Invite him or I'm going to invite him for you in his blog!

So I sent him an e-mail, he didn't answer, and it got Heidi off my case. Crisis of totally embarrassing proportions averted. Except, right there in the middle of my launch party for my first book that I wrote because John Green wrote LOOKING FOR ALASKA, I look up and there's John Green.

No seriously, he's right freaking there. With his lovely wife, and I suppose I looked somewhat anxious, because I was talking to people, and he was right there, and it was all chaos- because he said, very gently, "It's okay, I'll wait. It's your party."

I'm sure I babbled- thankfully, I've blocked that all out. But what I do remember is John getting up to the table with a copy of my book to sign. And he gestures at the book club medal that I have sitting on my table. He says, "Congratulations on that. I never got in there; my books are too "dirty"." The quotes were audible.

Which baffled me, because all I could remember about LOOKING FOR ALASKA was its honesty. Its truth. But I found out when I got the book club catalog. LFA had that one scene- a fumbling, uncomfortable, deeply unerotic scene about sex without love. And my book had a warning for sexual situations for this:

"Oh really? Is Uncle Carl a gambler?"

"Hardly." Uncle Lee snorted, then sat back. "Look now, maybe I fell in love with an accountant, but take my word. I still know everything."


"I was in love with your mama, and he was in love with me."

And that, right there, is what's wrong with rating books, age-banding them, with letting other people decide for you what's appropriate and what isn't.

There are people find sexual situations in two lines about love. There are people who decide books like LOOKING FOR ALASKA are too dirty. And there are people who decide that your religion probably isn't appropriate. That your disease is too terrifying or too shameful to discuss. That your ideas are dangerous and shouldn't be shared.

The whole reason the US has freedom of speech is to protect unpopular speech. The whole reason we have freedom of the press is to encourage dissent. We're supposed to read books that make us uncomfortable- and we're supposed to talk about them. The solution to speech that confronts us is not limiting it- it's adding to it.

So during this Banned Books week, I hope you'll read a book that someone doesn't want you to read. The ALA keeps a list- pick one and go. Or read my favorite banned book, LOOKING FOR ALASKA. It made a novelist out of me; what will it make out of you?


  1. I love the John Green story! I'll have to remember that.

  2. Wow. I think this is one of my favorite posts about banned books. It's a truly inspiring story, and especially because I felt similarly when I read LFA.

    Also, John Green is an amazing person. Just... amazing.